The Muted Fight Against HB 1523, the Most Anti-LGBT Law in America

In Mississippi, business owners who believe marriage can only be heterosexual, that gender cannot be changed, and that premarital sex is immoral, can deny service to LGBT people.

Remember in 2014 when Indiana passed an anti-LGBT “religious freedom” law? The ensuing national anger—and widespread corporate boycotting—effectively forced then-governor Mike Pence to revise the legislation mere days later.

Or, if 2014 seems like ancient history by now, do you remember last March, when North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” was condemned by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the NBA? The outrage continued until this March, when the state legislature rolled back key portions of the bill just in time to win back NCAA championship games.

When it comes to LGBT rights, pressure works. So why isn’t the worst anti-LGBT law on the books today generating nearly as much attention or outrage?

Two years after the country declared that #LoveWins, where is the love for Mississippi?

Mississippi’s House Bill 1523, one of the cruelest pieces of legislative retaliation against the LGBT community ever written, has been in effect since Oct. 10 after an injunction against it was lifted.

It specifically protects three religious beliefs—that marriage can only be heterosexual, that gender cannot be changed, and that premarital sex is immoral—and allows business owners to deny service to LGBT people based on those beliefs. It is more than just a license to discriminate; it is almost a specific invitation to do so.

To be clear, this law is being challenged in the courts. In fact, it took a long time to go into effect—after originally being signed in April 2016—due to legal challenges brought by the national organization Lambda Legal and local LGBT advocates.

Just last week, as the Associated Press reported, a judge allowed the LGBT rights group Campaign for Southern Equality to reopen a lawsuit against the Mississippi law. Then this Monday, the same group filed another appeal against the law. As was the case with Missisippi’s ban on same-sex adoption, it wouldn’t be a surprise if HB 1523 eventually died a long, slow, judicial death—potentially in the Supreme Court itself.

In the meantime, though, it’s telling that Missisippi’s anti-LGBT law—despite being even worse than Indiana’s or North Carolina’s—isn’t causing as much of a splash. Public and economic pressure seemed to be enough in those two states to get notoriously anti-LGBT laws neutered; Mississippi’s HB 1523, despite being covered by most major media outlets, hasn’t broken through the national conversation in the same way.

A month after North Carolina’s House Bill 2 went into effect, bathrooms became a national talking point. We were talking about Target’s restroom policy and tallying the economic impact of the bill. A month into HB 1523 going into effect, paying attention to the law’s impact has mostly fallen to local papers.

Part of that can be attributed to Mississippi’s reduced profile within the country as a whole.

On rankings of states with the best economies, Mississippi often comes in dead last. In 2015, for example, Business Insider put it below West Virginia, calling out its shrinking state GDP. Indiana and North Carolina both fell much higher, thanks to wage growth in the Midwest manufacturing haven and job growth in the Tar Heel State. And, of course, there are simply fewer people in Mississippi—2.9 million on the 2010 census compared to North Carolina’s 9.5 and Indiana’s 6.4. In fact, Mississippi’s population is actually shrinking as young people leave the state.

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But size shouldn’t matter when it comes to human rights—and it’s gut-wrenching to think that there could be less noise about Mississippi’s anti-LGBT law simply because fewer people live or do business there.

Of course, the Trump administration’s relentless stream of anti-LGBT actions—and the Trump administration’s defiance of political norms more generally—could also be overshadowing state-level LGBT drama. (When North Carolina and Indiana first passed their most recent anti-LGBT laws, by contrast, Obama was president.) Since taking office, the Trump administration has rescinded guidance protecting transgender students restroom rights, appointed a slew of anti-LGBT government officials, lost six members of its advisory council on HIV/AIDS, remained silent on Pride month, rescinded transgender workplace protections, and tried to ban transgender troops from the military.

Perhaps if HB 1523 were enacted under any other presidential administration—or simply in a state where more reporters live—discussion of the law would dominate the airwaves. But with so much happening on the national stage, an anti-LGBT law in Mississippi might seem like a minor subplot.

But when it comes to queer life in America, Mississippi is the plot: a perfect case study in how anti-LGBT forces on the Religious Right can take control of a state and try to push queer people out of the public sphere—all while our attention is focused firmly on D.C.

Asked about the lack of public attention to the situation in Mississippi, Aaron Sarver, communications director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, told me that “there are a lot more LGBTQ folks in the South than perhaps most people realize, even in Mississippi—not just Atlanta and Orlando-type bigger cities.”

Indeed, as the organization noted in a recent press release, the Williams Institute found in 2016 that 60,000 LGBT adults call the Hospitality State home. And while the state may fall last on several quality-of-life rankings, it does have the 14th highest percentage of transgender adult residents in the country.

The pushback on HB 1523 is there if you know where to look. Ellen DeGeneres delivered a moving monologue about the law last year. A handful of blue states have banned non-essential government employee travel to Mississippi. A list of celebrities including Bryan Adams and Sharon Stone took action to protest the law—although it wasn’t nearly as long as the list of celebrities who stood up against North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.”

But as we learned during Mike Pence’s “religious freedom” debacle and North Carolina’s yearlong “bathroom bill” episode, it requires a constant, sustained, and bright spotlight to make these anti-LGBT laws wither away without resorting to the judiciary. And whether it’s attributable to a national deficit of attention or empathy, Mississippi is not getting the same treatment. The worst anti-LGBT law in America is getting away with it.